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This sentence appeared in a recent New Yorker article written by the copy chief there:

I find it easier to use the serial comma consistently rather than stop every time I come to a series and register whether or not the comma before the "and" preceding the last item is actually preventing ambiguity.

Isn't this grammatically incorrect? Shouldn't this be:

I find it easier to use the serial comma than to stop every time I come to a series ...

– deleting the rather and adding a to? Isn't something easier than, and not easier rather than?

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    I don't see why both constructions aren't correct. Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 16:14

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The Cassell Guide to Common Errors in English (p251) would agree with you. It states:

There is a tendency to combine 'more' (or some other comparative) with 'rather than' in such a way as to upset the grammar.

Among the examples the CGCEE lists is this one:

'The German appeal for an armistice was put to President Woodrow Wilson in the hope it would get a better deal from him rather than from Britain or France' (The Times). Here again the word 'rather' should be omitted.

The same advice is given by The Right Word at the Right Time (p513):

Take care not to use rather than in place of than after more, simpler, harder, and so on.

*He finds it simpler doing the sums in his head rather than looking for a paper and pencil. Either omit the rather here, or say simply He does the sums in his head rather than looking for a pencil and paper.

The more recent Garner's Modern American Usage (p694) concurs:

*More...rather than. It's poor syntax to write more...rather than-e.g.: "His ideological convictions...were defined more by present-day concerns rather [delete 'rather'] than by thirteenth-century conditions," Robert E. Norton, Secret Germany 667 (2002).

Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (p798) lists various commentators who "notice a curious construction in which a comparative that you would expect to be followed by 'than' takes 'rather than' instead". The MWDEU gives a couple of examples of this usage and continues:

The reason for the awkwardness of the sentences is that the more in each sentence leads the reader to expect the usual than, but rather than turns up in its place. The existence of such sentences (which we advise you to avoid) is good evidence that rather than is perceived as a unit by many writers. We lexicographers will, in time, have to recognise its existence.

So the usage guides are fairly unanimous that this is a construction to be avoided. And, as the OP suggests, a careful writer might not only omit the rather in New Yorker sentence but also insert a to for sake of parallelism:

I find it easier to use the serial comma consistently than to stop every time I come to a series ... .

I myself, however, do not find the rather than usage particularly problematic.

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  • I am very surprised by all those sources. To me, removing rather completely changes the meaning. In most cases, it would make more sense to change rather than to instead of, though that can lead to awkward sentences; e.g., “The German appeal was put in the hope it would get a better deal from him, instead of from Britain or France”. With rather: a better deal is assumed; they’re hoping to get it from Wilson rather than Britain or France. Without rather: they’re hoping the deal Wilson will offer will be better than the one Britain or France would offer. Completely different. Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 20:02
  • @Janus, the Cassell book has a section on this which seems to support what you say: 'Rather than' is concerned with what is preferred to what; 'instead of' is concerned with what is substituted for what. These two connotations often overlap, so that sometimes either construction might serve. It is worth remembering that 'instead of' allows greater grammatical freedom to the writer.'
    – Shoe
    Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 20:11
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Both sound correct to me.

Something can in fact be easier than something else, but it's also easier to use something rather than something else.

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  • Not a valid analogy: the original does not say it is easier to use (a) the serial comma rather than (b) [some other mark of punctuation]; it says it is easier (a) to use the serial comma consistently rather than (b) [do something else]. Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 15:51
  • @BrianDonovan I disagree with your (a–b)’ifying of the original sentence. The original sentence is not a more A than B construction at all. You could replace the comparative with a superlative in the original sentence, and it would still mean the same thing: “I find it easiest to use the serial comma consistently, rather than stop every time and…”. Rather than in this sense can be used whenever there is any kind of comparison implied (including superlatives), which than can’t: “I prefer staying in, rather than going out” vs. “I prefer staying in *than going out”. Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 20:07

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